When we, as individuals, are struggling or experiencing difficult times, we always rely on loved ones’ support; the sense of belonging and warmth can take away many of life’s pains and anxieties. Family, often, is at the centre of our lives. Regardless of the size of our family or who we call family, they encourage us and empower us to be resilient.
For refugees, it is a different story. They are forced to leave their homes in order to escape from war and prosecution, to be separated from family and friends and to step onto a dangerous path seeking safety, which always comes with a great deal of trauma, anxiety and stress. When they reach the destination, they must go through the process of gaining asylum in a host country, which is often lengthy and stressful. This is not to mention the language barriers, destitution, depression and racism that asylum seekers and refugees face on a daily basis. In such situations, a familiar face can be invaluable.
However, thanks to restrictive family reunion rules in the UK, many refugees don’t get a chance to reunite with their families for a very long time, and in some cases they never do. According to the current law, family members are restricted to a partner or spouse with whom the refugee or asylum seeker has a ‘genuine’ relationship. Refugees can only sponsor their children if they are below the age of 18. Therefore, unaccompanied minors are not eligible to apply to be reunited with their family members as defined under this law and the responsibility for them falls under the remit of social services.
Angus MacNeil, Na h-Eileanan an Iar MP (SNP), introduced the Refugee Family Reunion Bill as a private member’s bill in July 2017. The bill expands the criteria of family members to include both full-blood and half-blood relatives, so grandparents, grandchildren, nieces and nephews would be recognised as family members who qualify for family reunification in the UK. Furthermore, according to the Family Reunion Bill, ‘in the case of an applicant who is under the age of 18 and neither of whose parents is known to be alive or able to reach the United Kingdom, a family member also means an aunt or uncle.’ Also, the reintroduction of legal aid has also been included in the bill in order to facilitate the reunion process.
Currently, refugees who are granted protection in UK, are often condemned to live in isolation and suffering as they are parted from their loved ones. The Family Reunion Bill is an opportunity to give them back their family lives. The bill emphasises the importance of family unity and children’s wellbeing. Being separated from loved ones and a close support network, especially at a young age, can have a lifetime of negative impacts on people’s lives and their mental health.
The second reading of the bill took place on 16 March 2018 and was backed by 131 cross-party MPs, including the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas MP, who believe the current family reunion law for refugees is restrictive and inadequate. However, Caroline Nokes, the Minister for Immigration, said the government will likely block the bill as she claimed “trying to promote and encourage alternative pathways into the UK could be putting the people they are trying to help in danger”.
The bill can and will help many refugees in desperate situations. According to the recent Refugee Council and Oxfam research, refugees who are surrounded by family members are more likely to integrate into their host society.
Sadly, the government has maximised its efforts to stop the bill. When the bill passed the second reading in the House of Commons, the government provided for a ‘money resolution’ – where a bill proposes spending public money on something not previously authorised by an Act of Parliament – immediately, but it’s been six months since the Family Reunion Bill passed its second reading and yet the government still hasn’t provided the money resolution.
This is not something that the government can afford to delay. For those fleeing conflict, persecution and poverty that the UK has welcomed, the strain that being separated from loved ones can cause can only be borne for so long. This bill should be seen as a matter of urgency and humanity – there is no time to lose.